Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

After a notoriously prolonged and troubled production, when Francis Ford Copolla's epic Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now, was released in 1979, it wasn't long before it was heralded as one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. Even after multiple viewings, I am consistently amazed by some of the sequences, and it always leaves me emotional. It is one of the finest films I have ever seen, and will remain a long time favorite.

Director/producer Francis Ford Copolla, the man responsible for the Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990) and The Conversation (1974), had originally offered the role of director to George Lucas, before taking on the project himself. He also worked on the script with John Milius. Originally the film was budgeted to cost about $12-13 Million, but after Copolla began to indulge himself in the project, the budget ballooned to over $30 Million, with a series of well publicized delays and on-set catastrophes that resulted in one of the most grueling shoots in history. Coppola himself was actually suicidal, the cast and crew indulged in drugs, many of the sets were destroyed by a fierce hurricane, and Martin Sheen suffered a debilitating heart attack that left him hospitalized, causing further delays. The end result is an obviously flawed surrealistic masterpiece that documents the violence, confusion and nightmarish madness that came as a result of service in Vietnam. A groundbreaking epic, it is visually stunning, and features some of the most memorable characters and sequences you will see.

The film is inspired by Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness and influenced by one of the great examples of a journey into the heart of madness, Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). The film follows Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) as he journeys up the Nung river, snaking through the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia, to a forest compound governed by a renegade American Special Forces Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), whose unsound methods now exist outside the jurisdiction of the American Military. Settled in neutral Cambodia, Kurtz now rules his own native army, and is believed to have gone rouge. Willard's mission is to infiltrate this compound and exterminate the Colonels command. He is assigned to a Navy Patrol Boat, PBR Streetgang, who would escort him up river to his classified destination. The vessel was run by an eclectic gang of misfits, including 'Chief' Phillips (Albert Hall), Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Mr Clean (Lawrence Fishburne) and Chef (Frederick Forrest). Each give brilliant independent performances, and each transcends into a disillusioned state in their own way. Willard's mission is priority, but obstacles along the way both strengthen their kinship, and further alienate them from one another.

The opening sequence is one of the most powerful openings ever to a film. To the haunting score of The Doors' The End, the sounds of the helicopter blades can be heard approaching and then passing a riverside treeline in slow motion. The tree line is bombed with napalm and the image transforms into a full speed ceiling fan in a hotel room mimicking the sound of the helicopters, and the face of Captain Willard stares absently into the camera. Willard's prolonged isolation and plummet into temporary insanity is demonstrated in a shocking sequence which sees him sculling bottle after bottle of hard liquor, stripping to his underwear, punching his mirror and cutting his hand, and then wiping the blood over his face, before falling off his bed amongst a tangle of sheets. Reports from the shooting that it became so intense during the production, and the location so humid, that Sheen's performance was not all acting but caused by a natural breakdown. The following morning, Willard gets his request, and is summoned to a hut for a lunch meeting with two U.S Intelligence officers and a Government representative, who inform him of Kurtz' actions, and assign him the mission to terminate his command 'with extreme prejudice.' The military ineptitude of the military superiors is demonstrated in this early sequence as the bumbling Colonel (Harrison Ford) drops the dossier of classified files, and stammers through his brief. The General (G.D Spradlin) seems more preoccupied with the quality of the local produce used in their lunch, than the mission at hand. Willard accepts the classified mission and is assigned to the Navy Patrol Boat to begin his journey to find Kurtz.

Apocalypse Now is full of truly memorable sequences. The first of which is the rendezvous with Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a likable but reckless Colonel who commands a dawn chopper attack on a coastal Vietcong base purely for the pleasure of watching Lance (a famous surfer back in the U.S) and a couple of his men surf the strong offshore break, and to indulge in the victorious smell of napalm in the morning. The attack sequence is unforgettable. Flying low and in formation to the sound of Wagner, the Americans' heavy helicopter assault is one of the few pure action sequences in the film and it is captured beautifully. Kilgore's men transport their boat to the mouth of the Nung River so their journey can commence. Further up the river, when Chef and Willard trek into the jungle to search for mangoes, the pair are terrorized by a tiger, which prompts Chef to breakdown and declare to 'never get off the boat'. The river, while far from safe, must be considered their haven for the entirety of this mission. Willard surmises in his voice-over that "Kurtz got off the boat" and had removed himself from the true reality of both the war and humanity.

But essentially, the deaths later in the film of both Clean and Chief are present on the boat following shore attacks from the Vietcong. But it is the encounters with American allies off the boat that slowly plunge the team into madness. Early, the men stop for fuel and supplies at an army outpost which is a hive of activity in preparation for the nights entertainment. Willard's men receive invitations to a Playboy Bunny show, which results in a drunken mob of soldiers swarming onto the stage to engulf the women, before they escape on their transport chopper. The team leaves the outpost at dawn in good spirits with complementary magazines. Further up the river they encounter a junk boat and perform a routine check for illegal goods. It results in the massacre of all those on board when they try to prevent Chef from discovering a puppy on board. Willard kills the final wounded survivor, exerting his dominance over the rest of the team, declaring that his mission has priority and that there would be no more unauthorized stops. This is a major turning point in the film as Willard reveals a personal ruthlessness required for his mission, and further alienates himself from the rest of the crew. Chef and Clean both are strongly affected by the events and Lance becomes a drug riddled recluse, adopting the puppy and is on the verge of insanity for the remainder of the film.

My favorite sequence in the whole film is the stop at Do Long Bridge, the last U.S Army outpost before the river snakes into Cambodia. The crew arrives as the bridge is being attacked by the Vietcong. Willard and Lance climb ashore to search for a Commanding Officer. Crawling though flooded, unlit trenches the pair find reckless soldiers fighting without leadership. Asking a panicked solider who the commanding officer is, he is responded by an unsure, "ain't you?" This sequence is stunning. The illuminated bridge, surrounded by frequent artillery strikes, is one of the most visually spectacular sequences ever filmed. The use of the natural light from the flares is also used to brilliant effect. Failing to find anything not resembling chaos, the crew pull out and continue up river certain that they were now officially on their own. First, Clean is killed by unsuspecting artillery fire from the shore, and later, nearing the Kurtz compound, the Montagnard villagers shoot arrows and throw spears at the passing boat, hitting and killing Chief. Willard, Chef and Lance direct the boat to the port of the outpost which is surrounded by silent villagers. A freelance American Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) greets them on arrival and briefs them about Kurtz and his followers and the rules of the outpost.

Kurtz resides inside a Buddhist temple that is surrounded by bloody bodies and severed heads. Upon Willard's request he is brought before Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who recounts his war experiences and his philosophies and questions Willard on theories of war and humanity. He interrogates Willard's mission; asking him if he is an assassin, and whether or not he views his methods to be unsound. Kurtz' monologues are hauntingly poetic as he recounts one such experience in Special Forces where he was left traumatized but ultimately wiser about the complexities of his enemy, and concluded that the American commitment in Vietnam was futile in comparison, hence his desertion. His recounts to Willard are for the purpose of his understanding so that he could reveal the true character of Walter E. Kurtz when he returned to his superiors. Without words, he requests that Willard end his reign.

Willard's massacre of Kurtz with a machete is juxtaposed with the ceremonial slaughtering of a buffalo, to the score of the final intense minutes of The Doors' The End. It is unforgettable. Kurtz whispers 'the horror...the horror' moments before his death as if he is recounting the most terrifying nightmares of his existence, and surmising the entirety of Vietnam conflict. From what we have seen throughout Copolla's film, we can now certainly understand the needless waste of life resulting from the campaign. The villagers drop their arms to Willard and allow him and Lance to leave the outpost. The final shot from the rear of the retreating patrol boat is of the now leaderless outpost, before the screen turns black.

The scale of Apocalypse Now is monumental. One of the grandest war epics ever made. The performances are just sensational, and even Marlon Brando, who arrived on set unprepared and overweight, delivers a chilling yet sympathetic performance. Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper (who has never been more eccentric) and Robert Duvall (who won a supporting Oscar for his performance) are all excellent, and the changes to all the characters are so naturally orchestrated. The attention to detail and the complexities of the sets are incredible, and to pause any shot in the film would reveal a stunning still. While there are some flaws with the editing, especially in the 2001 re-released Redux version, the episodes are so memorable in their entirety that their linking doesn't deter from their power. Along with Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), this is the greatest war film I have witnessed and certainly one of cinemas most applauded achievements.

My Rating: 5 Stars (A+)


  1. That was an excellent, passionate and palpable review of what I, too, consider to be one of the ultimate achievements in cinema. Marlon Brando's haunting croak-whisper, "The horror...the horror..." has taken permanent residence in my brain. Bravo, Mr. Buckle on a well-thought out and cogent essay on this film, which is truly a tour de force.
    M. Lewis
    Los Angeles

    1. Thank you very much for reading, and the kind words. I too have 'the horror...the horror' locked into my consciousness, and the film is littered with amazing scenes. Few achievements in cinema match this for scale and power.